Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, January 28, 2000  |  Number 2
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Wilson Stories

How to impress a graduate student

What was it like to work for Bob Wilson? How can one encapsulate in a few sentences a life experience of working with this great man, first as a graduate student at Cornell, and then a few years later as we built the Fermilab Main Ring?

Wilson was my teacher, the most important teacher in my life. I learned physics from him. I learned people skills from him. More than any other individual he profoundly influenced my life.

Wilson taught me how to run a milling machine in the Newman Lab shop as we built solid prototypes of the pole tips for the world's first strong focusing synchrotron.

There are wonderful stories of Wilson's charm, his decisiveness, his skill at management, but foremost about his charm and humanity. Here is a story of "how to impress a young graduate student." One evening on shift with him at Cornell, we were looking for a leak in the glass vacuum chamber of the "donut," using helium gas to locate the leak. Bob suspected where the leak was but the hose from the helium supply didn't reach that far. With a twinkle in his eye he took a big gulp of helium and held it in his mouth while he ran to the suspected location. He blew the helium on the rubber boot gasket and found the leak! Then he turned to me and grinned. This typifies to me everything great about the man: his decisiveness, his knowledge, his originality, and a "can do" attitude, only one of his legacies to Fermilab.

Building the Main Ring was the greatest adventure of my life. It was a complex undertaking and Bob was often criticized. He wrote me in April 1973, "A project such as this is almost beyond the scale of human endeavor. All of us in one way or another have been twisted and tortured by the sheer enormity of the responsibilities and difficulties, human as well as physical, of the job we undertook to do."

For me that stormy and fast-paced period was special because Wilson always was at the helm. He was fearless and he was impatient with bureaucracy. He never left us hanging for lack of a decision and he shielded us from the critics. He inspired us with his eloquence and with his joy and humor that shone through all our temporary setbacks. He only required us to do our best.

by Ernest Malamud

The value of aesthetics

Back in my first years at the Laboratory, I had just taken the reins of the Switchyard and extraction group. I had inherited a summer student named Chris Winter, son of Tex Winter, later assistant coach of the World Champion Chicago Bulls and inventor of the triangle offense. Chris was a physics major at Northwestern. While he was spending his summer here, he decided that he needed a year off from school; and we managed to find him a semipermanent position as a technician in the Switchyard Group. One night I asked Chris to work some overtime involving beam instrumentation, or somethingó I don't really remember. The point is that he was working in the basement of the High Riseó not yet Wilson Halló and Wilson was working that evening in the same area, doing grinding and welding on the obelisk that now adorns the center reflecting pond out front. Chris noticed him working nearby but had no idea who he was.

After awhile, Chris decided he would make a new friend, so he sauntered over to Wilson and asked, "What have they got you doing here tonight?"

Wilson replied, "I'm working on a sculpture for the pond out front."

To which Chris responded, "Boy, they sure can figure out more ways for you to waste your time around here!"

Well, you can imagine what happened next. I only got Chris's version, but he assured me that I need not doubt that he fully understood the value of aesthetics in this Laboratory and everywhere else, for that matter.

by Roger Dixon


After Bob left Fermilab, I was surprised to notice how short he was, in photographs. He was only about 5' 6" tall. At the time I was working for him, I would have sworn he was well over 6 feet. He certainly seemed at least that tall when I was working for him.

by Peter Limon

Almost scandalous

Since the middle of September, I've seen Bob nearly every day here in Ithaca. It has been difficult to communicate with him, but I did try to greet him every day. I would have liked to be able to tell him how much I appreciate the lasting imprint he made on Fermilab.

Outside the apartment door where he was living is a female torso sculpture he did. It's been amusing to watch the elderly residents of the retirement complex whisper about it as they discover it! Almost scandalous. I like to think that he enjoyed that.

by Betsy Schermerhorn

Reciprocal respect

I was a an electronics technician in the early days. I guess many of us felt that Bob was "family," and we would do anything that he wanted. I can remember lying in the mud and partial concrete floor between the L1 and L2 straight sections in the 10 GeV tunnel, and along comes Bob in his yellow boots flopping in the mud and water. There I was, all covered with mud and slime and wetter than a duck's bottom, and Bob would say "Dave, do you think it will ever work?" He would reach out and help me up, hand me a towel to wipe my hands and I would say, "Bob, I guarantee that my part will work just like you want it to!"

He would always reply, "Thank you. I am counting on you all." I admired him for being so respectful for what I could contribute. I never felt as though I was just being used, or just a small cog that had no value. He was so appreciative of what and how we did what we did. America has lost more than just a scientist, it has lost a model for what the human race needs to become.

by Dave Austin ID 1996 (Retired)

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